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PA Supreme Court Confirms Third-Party Contractor Has Duty to Warn of Obvious Dangers

August 4, 2023

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In a May 2023 opinion, the Supreme Court of Pennsylvania potentially expanded contractor liability to third parties injured by construction defects.  <em>See <a href="">Brown v. City of Oil City</a></em>, 294 A.3d 413 (Pa. 2023).

In 2011, due to weathering and aging, the condition of Oil City Library’s concreate entrance stairs significantly declined since their construction in 1904.  <em>Id </em>at 419.  As a result, Oil City (“City”)  contracted with Harlod Best and Struxures, LLC (collectively “contractors”) to develop plans to reconstruct the stairs and oversee the implementation of those plans.  <em>Id. </em> The actual reconstruction work of removing and replacing the stairs was performed by subcontractor Fred Burns Inc., pursuant to a contract with the City and Contractors.  <em>Id.</em>

Shortly after the stairs were installed, the City began receiving reports about imperfections in the concrete surface, which also began to degrade; these imperfections prompted the City to inform Struxures that it considered the stairs to be “dangerous and defective.” <em>Id.</em> Over the years, the condition of the stairs continued to worsen, neither the City nor Contractors made repairs. <em>Id.</em>

In November 2015, David and Kathryn Brown was exiting the library; Kathryn tripped and fell on one of the deteriorated sections, and struck her head, resulting in a fatal head injury.  David brought a lawsuit against the City, Contractors, and Fred Burn’s Inc. <em>Id. </em>With respect to the Contractors and Fred Burns, Brown argued that their work on the steps created a dangerous condition and an unreasonable risk of harm.  <em>Id.</em>

At the trial level, the Contractors filed a successful motion for summary judgement based on the argument that § 385 of the Restatement (second) of Torts provides no duty to out of possession contractors to third parties harmed by conditions of their work done on behalf of another.  <em>Id. </em>at 420.

However, on appeal, the Supreme Court of Pennsylvania found that nothing in the Restatement that would exempt an out-of-possession contractor from liability when it makes a repair to a chattel that it reasonably should foresee would render it dangerous to a third party who uses it, even when its dangerous condition is obvious.  <em>Id </em>at 430.  Further, the Court found that a contractor has a duty to inform a third-party user of a dangerous condition when the contractor “has no reason to believe the third party will realize the dangerous condition which the contractor created.” <em>Id.</em>

The Court found that a contractor who has created a dangerous condition through work performed for a possessor of land may be liable to all persons injured by the dangerous condition, even if that condition is obvious or apparent in nature. <em>Id </em>at 435.  The Court reversed the order for Summary Judgment and remanded the case to the trial court.  <em>Id. </em>

While this case does not provide a holding that these contractors should be held liable, the Court did hold that these contractors, and those in similar positions <em>could </em>be held liable in these kinds of situations.  It is early to tell if this ruling will spark changes in plaintiff’s decisions on what parties to name in a lawsuit.

Thanks to Hannah Garber for her contribution to this article.  Should you have any question, contact <a href="">Matthew Care</a>.


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